In 1637, René Descartes published his work Discourse on the Method. In this work, Descartes discusses philosophical skepticism, doubting everything until arriving at truth which he considers to be so self evident as to be beyond discussion. This tome is the source of what is perhaps the most famous philosophical statement ever made: “Cogito, ergo sum”, “I think, therefore I am”. A statement that is deceptively simple and was revolutionary at the time. It is also a foundation of how to be a freethinker.
What does it mean to be a freethinker?
What was so revolutionary about the statement “I think, therefore I am”? In writing it, Descartes makes the person who does the thinking the one who arrives at truth, grounded in nothing but his/her own judgement. This was a radical departure from existing philosophical practice in Europe which considered God the ultimate authority and foundation of truth. Descartes, as an Enlightenment thinker, no longer relied upon God as the ultimate outside authority. Instead, authority stemmed from human thought about the world using skepticism, rationality and logic as vehicles to an understanding of reality. This emancipation from church thought, putting the human being at center stage, is what made the period of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution possible.
Free thought is predicated on the idea that human beings are capable of forming an accurate understanding of reality on their own. A freethinking person does not rely on authority, dogma, scripture, revealed wisdom, prophecy or tradition for what to think. A freethinker will form her or his own conclusions and opinions, even if they do not align with the opinions of the majority of people.
Impediments to free thought.
Free thought does not come easy or naturally to people, it has to be taught and unfortunately it’s something that schools do not do enough. That means that freethinkers have to be on their guard against a number of impediments that can interfere with our ability to think freely. Here are a number of dangers that freethinkers face but keep in mind it’s by no means a complete list.
Too much information
Before we had the internet and social media, it took a long time for ideas and information to reach people. Information was a trickle. Nowadays, if we are not careful, we are continuously bombarded by a virtual tsunami of information and notifications that draw our attention. If we’re honest, most of that information isn’t particularly useful. Do we really need to see that video of a new game? Do we need to read (and respond to) every tweet or Facebook post? No, of course not. A continuous stream of noise posing as information will stifle our ability to think clearly.
Free thought is not everyone’s cup of tea. As a freethinker, you are always at risk of developing conclusions and opinions that fall foul of those held by your friends and family, your colleagues, your employer or the vast majority of humanity. For instance, free thought is opposed to dogma and scripture, so any freethinker will be wary of the claims of religion. Freethinkers won’t accept claims at face value and will question generally accepted rules. It is much easier – or more cowardly as some would argue – to seek refuge in the consensus, to conform to majority opinion. If that’s your choice, we can not count you among the freethinkers of the world.
As a freethinker, you run the risk of being thought arrogant. People generally don’t like those they think of as arrogant or elitist. That is not an argument against free thought, it’s easy to be thought of as arrogant when you don’t accept the majority view. A more serious problem could be that you actually become arrogant, thinking other people as conformist or lazy for not thinking as you do. Being a freethinker doesn’t mean that you are inherently smarter than other people or know better than them, it just means that you’ve made up your own mind.
Preconceived ideas or opinions
All of us have ideas or opinions that are ingrained so deeply into our mind, that we are simply unaware of them. These can be ideas that we grew up with, ideas we read about or heard about and which we’ve internalized. To give an example, this can be an idea about gender roles or political ideas. Such ideas are a stumbling block on the path to become a true freethinker because they rely on tradition or the authority of others. If we are not aware of them, they influence our thinking and we may arrive at conclusions which are still based on tradition. Every time you immediately jump to a conclusion, check if there’s not a preconceived idea lurking at bottom.
How to be a freethinker.
If you wish to be a freethinker, prepare yourself for a barrage of questions and lots of uncertainty. Freethinkers are seldom certain and that is considered a good thing. In reality, things are rarely as clear as black and white, they’re different shades of grey. An amount of uncertainty in our thinking is thus to be expected.
Below are 5 practices and tools that can help you become a freethinker.
Asking the right questions
“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers“, as Voltaire said. What questions someone asks, reveals a lot about their thinking and how their mind works. This is very important if you want to be a freethinker. One of the most important questions that we can ask is “Why?” The “why” question forces us to look deeper, questions motives, opinions and beliefs. We need to do this for ourselves as well as for others because we also need to understand our thinking. When exploring a point, ask the “why” question 5 times. When you reach the end of that chain of questions, you will have gained a lot of insight.
You’ll often come across thoughts or opinions which seem to be held so widely that they must be true, right? Except that is not the case. The number of people who accept something as true, says nothing about whether or not something is actually true. As freethinkers, we need to dig deeper than that. For example, many people will claim that we only use 10% of our brain but this is simply not true, no matter how many times this claim is repeated by movie-makers or self help gurus who offer you help with unlocking the remaining 90%.
It’s even worse when something is presented as a majority opinion, like polls which are published. When I hear statistics like “53% of the American people think Trump is a great president”, I immediately ask myself a number of questions: who did they interview, what were the questions they asked, how did they do the analysis and who paid for the poll?
Don’t accept statements readily, question assumptions (including yours) and ask the question behind the question. Distrust anything that offends reason or contradicts science.
Know how you know
Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. If you plan to dig deeper, it is important to know how to think and reason properly. How do you know facts are facts? What does it mean when someone says “this is a fact?” How do you know for instance that the Earth is round and how would you explain that to someone who doesn’t believe that? If you can’t explain it, are you sure you can accept this claim? Knowing how to construct a logically sound argument, how to use reason and logic and to avoid fallacies is vital to being a successful freethinker. How you think is even more important than what you think. Don’t take refuge in consensus because you’ll be safe in the majority. Freethinking doesn’t work that way.
Know what words mean
While epistemology is the study of how we know what we know, etymology is the study of the history of words and what words mean. If you don’t know what words mean, how are you going to make sense of a text or video? If you come across terms like Realpolitik or postmodernism and you don’t understand these terms, by all means look them up! Understanding the terms is vital if you want to form a proper understanding of what a text or video means.
Discuss with others
Freethinking is almost impossible to do on your own. To detect and correct for errors, it’s best to compare your thoughts with someone else. Explaining your thought process to others helps you formulate better structured arguments, gives others the chance to correct errors but it will also help you see where others make mistakes. Everyone can make mistakes and it is only by careful reasoning and comparing our thinking with like-minded people that we can improve our own and that of others. Freethinkers may disagree on many things but they all value open-mindedness, free inquiry and an exchange of ideas,
As mentioned above, nowadays we are continually bombarded with information, breaking news and notifications. A lot of the time, this is simply clutter that poses as information. If you try to take this all in, you will not have time to process anything, to give it an actual thought. Do we really need to hear the latest eructation of someone like Kim Kardashian or the irksome shrieks of those claiming offense at something or other? By reducing the background noise and focusing on (f)actual information, we will have more time to process and evaluate information. Only then can we be effective as freethinkers.
Are you a freethinker?
Now that I have given you some pointers on how to be a freethinker, would you like to know if you are one? If so, try and answer the following questions honestly. You don’t have to send me the answers, you can do so for yourself.
- Do you ever adopt a belief or assume something is true without considering it carefully?
- Do you follow all the new trends and do you drop them when they go out of fashion?
- Can you entertain various ideas in your mind, weigh them, play around with them, without adopting them as true or discarding them as false?
- Are you religious? If so, is it the religion you grew up with? Or did you examine a number of religions before choosing one to adopt?
- Do you know why you love or hate something?
If you answered the above questions truthfully, you’ll probably have a good idea if you are a freethinker or not. If you decide you are not, I have given you an idea of how to be a freethinker with this article. The rest is up to you. Was this post helpful in any way? Got anything to add? Please leave a comment below!